Diplomas: Heading for the Vocational Course Graveyard

Vocational education in this country has always been rather undervalued, but this is not due to a lack of public interest. Less academic pupils have flocked initially to each new course, encouraged by schools who find them hard to manage in the more traditional subjects. But each has failed in its turn due to political interference and the support of left leaning staff in university education departments.

The new Diplomas will go the same way unless the lessons of history are learned by the government very soon.

First Up — the GCSE

The first big attempt at gaining the parity of esteem for those who were directed towards the less challenging CSEs was abolishing them along with the respected O Level courses and replacing them with the GCSE. These courses removed the stigma of CSEs, which had less emphasis on knowledge, but introduced the worthless F and G pass grades. The last twenty years has seen some improvements in teaching standards, but there has been much sliding in examination standards to produce an endless increase in the average grades awarded to allow weaker and weaker pupils to be gifted the prize of 'good' C grades.

But of course, the big failure of GCSEs was to abandon the skills base of CSEs. The academic content of O Levels was extended to all pupils, regardless of ability, in a vain attempt to prove that all could match what had been restricted to the brightest children. The weakness of this socialist fallacy, that differences between people are imposed from without and weak pupils are weak due to schools' low expectations of poor working class children, is that there is no one course that is suitable for all children.

This has always been accepted in the fields of sports and music, where talented children are taken and trained separately, but has been rejected for History and Mathematics. I'm not suggesting that maths whizzes are given one-to-one lessons away from their peers, just that it is not outrageous to suggest that schooling should recognise differing levels of talent by offering more tailored courses.

Next — GNVQs

More recently, the General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) was introduced to allow an option for pupils to follow a skills based course that was (another bugbear!) more focussed on life and job skills. All well and good, the English education sector had been calling out for such an approach for those teenagers who did not benefit awfully well from the academic O-Levels and GCSEs.

However, the politicians got to them first, requiring the exam boards to design into them a knowledge component comparable to existing courses, to avoid the press frenzy of "dumbing down" headlines. And with the facts and theories to learn there came the inevitable formal assessment of that knowledge in exams.

The poor children never stood a chance, since those that schools directed onto these courses had always failed exams. The only solution for the exam boards was to water down the rigor of the exams - dumbing down happened anyway, but the courses became less and less popular with students. Schools loved them, because GNVQs were so easy to pass those schools who enrolled most onto the courses did best in the exam 'league tables'.

Now Diplomas

Now we have the latest incarnation of the vocational option. Will it fare any better that the earlier attempts?

If they are to succeed they must be properly designed, with time allowed to review and redesign them. But the timetable has political significance, and the full roll-out must follow immediately from the trials, with final materials in teachers hands before they are actually completed. Government ministers should allow the course designers to make the detailed content design decisions without anyone looking over their shoulders.

And critically, must not try to reach too diverse a group of pupils, although the Advanced Science Diploma already seems to be aimed at all from future laboratory assistants to future Nobel Prize winners. There is a very good argument for having a separate course for those anticipating going on to science-based degrees. Having one course with multiple routes through will cause confusion and damage the qualification's credibility.

The introductory version of the Science Diploma does not have a clear target group either — is it aimed at being a taster for those who might like to enter science based industries, or should it be a first step up the ladder for those who are capable of higher level study? It can't do both.

Parity of Esteem Cannot be Mandated

The government has already delayed the introduction of the Advanced Science Diploma by a year, citing development difficulties, but the problems are likely to be intractable if they insist on one science course for all. If they don't pay heed to the science community the Diplomas will follow the CSE, GCSE and GNVQ to a long drawn out death.

Parity of esteem can only be gained for academic and vocational routes through having high quality courses. Mandating parity by blurring the distinctions is bound to fail.

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